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back to article Is the World Wide Web for luvvies and VCs – or for all of us?

The Web turns 25 years old today, and its inventor Sir Tim Berners-Lee has written yet another declaration of rights – a "Magna Carta" – to mark the occasion. These incessant anniversaries are proof that journalists and media luvvies love looking backwards rather than reporting what's in front of them - warts and all. But …

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Anonymous Coward

Much of the problem with the Internet now is tech companies aren't proposing new protocols or technologies that they are willing to share.

The release of the free and open WWW wouldn't have happened in 2014, it would have been a proprietary mess.

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You mean like AOL or CompuServe?

Companies always want to lock in the customer, or in the case of Facebook (and others) the product.

Maybe, in the Star Trek future, services like Google, Twitter and Facebook will be replaced by a web-based standard and users will have the freedom to choose the tools and UI for accessing the data without having to worry about who's serving it up.

Can't see it happening any time soon though.

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Big Brother

Berners-Lee and media luvvies?

What ever about the technicalities or the opinions of 'media luvvies`, Berners-Lee seems to be addressing the rights of ordinary people to access the Web without intrusive and sinister surveillance by the state security apparatus. Surely no one could find anything to criticise in that.

"But some governments are threatened by this, and a growing tide of surveillance and censorship now threatens the future of democracy."

"Bold steps are needed now to protect our fundamental rights to privacy and freedom of opinion and association online."

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Re: Berners-Lee and media luvvies?

@pacman7de:

The problem is that there are already plenty of Great Charters that are supposed to be protecting basic rights. The US even has a couple that are rather well known.

Like the endless flood of pointless new laws by knee-jerkist career politicians with no clue how the real world works, the hard part isn't telling people what they should and shouldn't do, but enforcing it.

And then there's the small matter of the Internet not being a public space. It's a network of mostly private networks, often connected by private infrastructure*. Freedom of Speech and all that jazz only apply to public spaces, not to private ones. There's a reason why an audience member can't just stand up in the middle of a stage play and start reciting bits of Shakespeare at the actors: their right to freedom of speech ended the moment they stepped into the theatre. Private property; their gaff, their rules. The Internet is no different.

Neither Facebook nor Google are doing anything wrong or evil. All their users have been notified, often repeatedly, that they are the product those companies are selling. If you don't like how they run their businesses, stop using them. It really is that simple.

* (No, you don't get to trot out the "British Telecom was once publicly owned!" cliché either: the GPO was privatised back in the early '80s. The GPO didn't have anything like the same infrastructure at the time of its privatisation.)

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Re: Berners-Lee and media luvvies?

"Neither Facebook nor Google are doing anything wrong or evil. All their users have been notified, often repeatedly, that they are the product those companies are selling. If you don't like how they run their businesses, stop using them. It really is that simple."

Indeed, users are the ones lending the power to these companies. But it isn't that simple. The problem is that people do not know that they have any choices. In fact they seem to have a deep rooted belief that this "technology" is beyond them. They will not take any ownership. I don't know how to solve this problem, but that is why things aren't "that simple".

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Depends on if you mean when it was designed or built?

The main reason they are saying it's 25 is that his original document proposing the "web" is dated March 1989.

What was 23 years ago (1991) was when the first implementation of a web server went online.

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Paris Hilton

Re: Depends on if you mean when it was designed or built?

Does life begin at conception, or at birth...?

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Re: Depends on if you mean when it was designed or built?

First Test Flight.

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Alien

Follow the money

Surely the Web could be more useful, if people were willing to pay for it. VC's are looking for the money, and they found it at the server end.

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Go

Didn't he invent the internet?

... and 800 years from now, kids and the artificially preserved 'Stephen Fry Consciousness App' will be telling how Tim B-L invented the Magna Carta too.

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Anonymous Coward

Hmm, a meta- meta- story. This is getting entirely too recursive for me.

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Whole heartedly agree.

Wish I could disagree with the points made. But, they are well made, and thoughtfully argued.

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Boffin

Humans can't handle the semantic web

Piaget taught that humans reach a "Formal Operational" stage of cognitive development around the time that they reach physical adulthood. Going by his classification, I think most people barely get into the "Concrete Operational" stage, which is supposed to end near puberty.

Semantic tagging is very abstract. Most people don't understand abstractness. And if you do understand it, it's a waste of effort to add appropriate metadata when there are no programs to process it. It's just much easier to stick to ad-hoc textual conventions. That's why Google needs all those PhD researchers, to extract the semantic information from the mess of text.

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Re: Humans can't handle the semantic web

> Most people don't understand abstractness.

Most people have never heard the word abstractness. Quite a few of us understand abstraction, however.

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What Orlowski is missing is that a full-fat SGML world wide web would never have happened and will never happen. Regular people have neither the interest nor the skill to do the markup work that makes an SGML doc useful. Even catalogue librarians, who tend to be reasonably intelligent and actually care about this sort of thing, need to go through extensive training to properly enter the small number of fields that make up the bibliographic entry for an entire book. What sorts of results to you think you will get from webpage authors' self-marked-up docs on Orlowski's imagined SGML web? Useless would be the best we could hope for. And if search engines were foolish enough to take the markup seriously, it would quickly become worse than useless as the markup became just another SEO toy.

Berners-Lee got it far more right than wrong. The hyperlink and the minimal required markup made it possible for any literate person to share their interests by creating web pages. The content collectively created by these folks was what eventually made the internet compelling enough for the average person to venture online.

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(Written by Reg staff) Silver badge

SGML was/is incredibly complex, formal, top-down, and bureaucratic. It was unapologetically "the book of everything". You needed to do a lot of work to gain some value from this complexity. So a document creator, unaided, wasn't going to bother.

But the protocol on its own doesn't define the future. Capital matters too. If VC money had made different bets in 1994, the communities and individuals writing would have had a different kind of help. WWW was one kind of kludge. Other kludges would have happened too. A mere fraction of the stuff that TBL omitted from WWW could be very empowering to people engaged in communities, needing communication tools, and help with documents. That "help" either never came, or only came via serve-side fiefdoms, like Facebook.

This was not inevitable. What is impossibly difficult one day can become easy, with tools, a few weeks later. We will never know.

"And if search engines were foolish enough to take the markup seriously, it would quickly become worse than useless as the markup became just another SEO toy."

Cause < > effect.

Search engines go where the people go. Gamers need something to game.

If a community of anglers, or Conservatives, or swingers, devise and popularise a language, or a tag set, then the search engine will follow. It will need to understand it. It has no option but to follow.

You ascribe some God-like omniscience and wisdom to search engines that simply isn't there. They are followers not leaders.

All I'm saying is: the web we might have had would look very different to the web we have today. The web we have today is the result of technical incompetence and the prejudices of finance capital, c.1994.

Replay the game, and you get a different result. That's all.

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It is not happenstance that the world you posit is not the world that exists. If you insist on any level of sophistication in your markup, you immediately cut your potential pool of volunteer content creators by at least an order of magnitude. And of course, much of the markup you do get will be hopelessly wrong. HTML took off in large part because it didn't try to force much structure onto content creators and it was pretty forgiving of sloppiness in the markup it did require.

And the volunteers matter. They matter a whole lot more than VC or even the web offerings of conventional businesses. The volunteers created the content that brought the eyeballs. The latter two only showed up because the eyeballs were already there. You are the one confusing cause and effect by saying VC bets determined the direction of the early web, it's actually the direction of the early web that set the possibilities for (internet) VC.

BTW, it's also you that is ascribing "God-like omniscience and wisdom to search engines" if you really believe they would be able to usefully parse out "a language, or a tag set" that changes arbitrarily from site to site. Anyway, HTML has always allowed metadata like creation dates to be included via the use of the META element. When I was creating websites in the mid to late '90s, I dutifully filled in meta author, keywords, dates, etc. All of which is now ignored by search engines since META got perverted into a SEO tool in the aughts.

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Thumb Up

As you have so rightly pointed out, I think this another perfect example of simplifying a technology to make it quickly usable by as many people as possible. TBL wanted people to use it and get up to speed quickly. When you teach primary school kids programming you don't give them a copy of "C# Bible" or the Java Doc set and expect them to start writing apps, you hand them something like Logo or SmallBasic, that have less keywords than the list of ingredients in beans-on-toast but it allows them to get up to speed quickly. Like most great, simple ideas we all plan to go back at some point and sort out the kinks but real life gets in the way and adoption of a simple tech is so rapid that it quickly becomes too late to retrospectively correct the mistakes as that would break it.

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Heavens - an Orlowski article that I mostly agree with. However, for the sake of consistency I should raise a few token disagreements and comments:

- Yes, SGML was all-singing and all-dancing, and full of rich semantics. I have a copy of the SGML Handbook on my office shelf, and have consulted it within the last three months. Parsing SGML, however, was a royal pain; TimBL's decision to design a simple angle-brackety markup language (I hesitate to call it an SGML application, because it didn't get a DTD until HTML 2.0) was a pragmatic one, and the simplicity (or perhaps paucity) of early HTML has in retrospect been a positive thing; easy to author, and fairly easy to write a bare-bones parser for.

- Your reference to XHL is interesting - you have a better memory than I do. However, XHL owed much to HyTime (which, as an aside, made SGML look almost straightforward by comparison), and much of the XHL work ended up being recycled in XLink. Of course, both XLink 1.0 and 1.1 have raised barely a ripple. Blame the browser manufacturers for being unwilling to support them.

- It's interesting that you don't also criticise the design of HTTP and URIs. Like HTML, their initial versions made some naive assumptions that later versions would correct.

If you're going to criticise the early Web for what it didn't do, you'd do well to consider why it succeeded when other contemporary hypertext systems (Hyper-G, for example) didn't.

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Some of this makes me want for "simpler" times.

Like when the information was "plain text" and you subscribed to Usenet newsgroups.

Unfortunately these are close to obsolete, but in their day, they were THE thing.

Now where is the alt...... newsgroup I (never mind)

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Re: Some of this makes me want for "simpler" times.

I'm with you on the text. The web has gotten harder to read. Still, if you want (I do it sometimes) you can make an incredibly simple web page using /pre in the body. It will load in less than a blink and the viewer will be treated to something as wonderful as the old README file. I know you know this, but my point is that we the people can still do what we want.

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Re: Some of this makes me want for "simpler" times.

I use Clearly from Evernote which strips most of the junk from a page and leaves a nice clean view of the actual text.

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Re: Some of this makes me want for "simpler" times.

Surely The Reg should be somewhere in the comp.sci.* hierarchy, or maybe talk.*, not alt.*?

As a bit of a sidenote, I just noticed that Google has destroyed the groups search function -- the advanced search is gone, so it is no longer possible to search for specific groups or posts from a specific time. It's a shame, as the UseNet archive was the only place one could get a good feel for how people felt about, say, Windows 95 on release.

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Re: Some of this makes me want for "simpler" times.

> Like when the information was "plain text" and you subscribed to Usenet newsgroups.

Some of us still do. And wail whenever we have to interact with a web forum, full of animated gifs and un-threaded conversations.

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isp commercial censorship

No, you can't access wikipedia, we've blocked their IP addresses. If you want access to wikipedia you have to subscribe to ISP "x". Facebook? Ha! You'll want ISP "y".

Yes we can offer you a bolt on package with Wikipedia and Facebook access, but that will cost you an extra £30 a month. It's a bargain though - you get access to necrophilia.com and gilfmania.org as well.

But I don't want to visit those sites!

Meh. Give me your money or jog on.

OK so I've paid for the "platinum" package with complete access to everything. Why can't I log on to Hulu.com?

That's not available in your country.

Wtf? I thought this was meant to be the WORLD WIDE WEB?

No. We gave that up years ago in favour of

WHAT WE WANT.

3 proxies later...

GDSOAB Hulu.com needs US ISP "z"...

This is not THAT unlikely... and to an extent it is already happening with tv/film.

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Re: isp commercial censorship

(cue libertarians explaining to you why this can never happen, because Liberty and Invisible Hand of the Truly Free Market)

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NRoff /Troff

I used to wrote whole technical documents in NRoff Troff for electrical engineering specs etc.. back in the 1990 so we can have a sort of intranet. You needed to think in certain abstract forms to get them to work correctly and all of them were written in Vi. Ah.... those where the days.

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Understatement

" It just happened to be a hack the world found useful at the time..."

That may possibly be the biggest understatement of all time. "Useful", huh? Talk about "damning with faint praise". The Web solved a huge and critically important problem: how to let researchers, engineers, and other people trying to do serious work read each other's texts quickly and easily from anywhere in the world. The hyperlinks were a major bonus. It's no exaggeration to say that the Web made the Internet accessible and useful to everyone - not just IT specialists.

TFA seems to verge on joining the chorus of commercial interests bitching that the Web, though given away free, failed to contain exactly those complex extensions that would make it easiest for them to amass fortunes in the shortest possible time. This misses the point: the Web was intended as a gift to humanity at large, and it solved the problem of distributed library access *and reference look-up*. It's one of the key principles of engineering that any good system does, essentially, one thing. Any system that compromises and tries to do several things will inevitably do none of them well. The Web, embodying the REST architectural style, was a huge success precisely because it was so simple.

As for the criticism that TBL didn't design in everything including the kitchen sink back in 1989, consider the classic statement (attributed to the great Fred Brooks among others), that "[e]very large system that works started as a small system that worked". Obviously, the original Web was a small system that worked. TBL's sensible approach also fits in perfectly with the Agile principles of avoiding "big up-front design" and YAGNI (you ain't gonna need it).

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Re: Understatement

The web was damn near useless for the first years.

"People trying to do serious work read each other's texts quickly and easily" did so also before the web, the UseNet and email systems were designed to do exactly that (I'd even say the early UseNet was a lot better at it than the current web is, because it was smaller and almost entirely populated by university professors & phd students)

What the web added wasn't mechanisms for serious work, it added _entertainment_, and, after another several years, also commerce.

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Do you remember where you were when Elvis got shot

To me the theoretical WWW start date is less important than when I personally discovered it - sticks in my mind so vividly. At the time I was very impressed with the concept of "winsock" - before that you could only run applications written for your particular vendor's TCP/IP stack. I found a winsock application called "Mosaic", a primitive browser, no idea what it was but thought I would try it out. I was literally gobsmacked, just sat there with my mouth hanging open because I knew it just changed everything.

A few months later I had a similar experience when I played my first MP3, it flashed though my mind immediately what was going to happen with that one.

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Re: Do you remember where you were when Elvis got shot

At the time I was very impressed with the concept of "winsock" - before that you could only run applications written for your particular vendor's TCP/IP stack

That only applies to Windows, of course - other OSes had standard TCP/IP APIs, and by the time Winsock came along, most had standardized on BSD sockets.1 And even for Windows it's not strictly true that Winsock was the first attempt to unify disparate Windows TCP/IP stack APIs - there was a product called VSL (Virtual Sockets Layer), for example, that supported a dozen or so of the most popular stacks. I don't remember the vendor and an online search didn't turn anything up, unfortunately.

But VSL was a kluge, and Winsock certainly made things much easier for those of us writing TCP/IP applications on Windows. I was working on a multiprotocol, multiplatform middleware product at the time2 - it ran on MS-DOS, Windows, OS/2, various UNIX flavors, OS/400, and S/390 CICS (MVS and VSE) and batch-mode MVS - and being able to get rid of VSL and some of the other Windows platform hacks was a great relief.

1System V's TLI had enough momentum to make it into both editions of Rich Stevens' UNIX Network Programming, and X/Open's XTI into the second edition, but neither ever saw much adoption in the real world. Though they had various advantages over the multiple implementations of sockets the latter's ubiquity won the day.

2Say mid-1993 to 1994, when Winsock 1.1 began to get decent penetration.

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TBL got it right

As others have said, the simplicity of HTML probably helped the WWW take off more than anything. When it comes to "Think of where we could be if..." you should really look at Microsoft. They're responsible for delaying technical innovation more than anything/anyone else. If they didn't exist, or if they'd have played fair the web would be a much better place today and a fair few other areas too.

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Fools with tools

Yes of course it's hard to disagree with Timberlee's shaking his head wishing it had all been so different. But the WWW is semantically dependent on a network (called the internet I think). This network was born of academia, funded by US government, listened upon at incept (more or less) by the NSA and Pentagon, regulated by international telecoms and thereby accountable to national and national governments within their jurisdiction, but more importantly open to and Fool with a Tool.

We allow people to own sharp (and in the US, ballistic) objects in the knowledge that on the whole, they will use them wisely and for their intended purpose. As such, we have policemen walking around our little worlds just in case this trust is breached. But on the internet, anything that is (generally) legal is allowed, as is anything illegal that is not known. People lose face, money and in the case of crime, their health and (esoterically) their lives.

So if the police are part of the fabric of society and Timberlee's Utopia is ultimately his Erehwon as represented by his 'Magna Carta', what ultimately do we want? I for one *want* a 'policeman' looking over my shoulder to see my kids getting groomed, my system getting zombie-ed or figuratively calling me an ambulance (since I so obviously need it).

Timberlee is an idealist and I respect that. He's also intensely naiive in thinking that just because his message makes perfect listening to a 'right on crowd' of prima-PR celebs and opportunist DotCommers, that any of it makes practical sense whatsoever.

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who wants to invest in implementing better open protocols...

...when some patent troll's only going to claim they got there first?

it doesn't even matter whether they have a case or not, these days (and maybe this has been the case throughout history), it all comes down to is whoever has the most stomach to keep up the fight. inevitably that's the one with the most money in their pockets.

so goodbye to all the wellmeaning individuals who wanted to the right thing because it was the right thing to do. yours is a by gone era. it's sad.

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FAIL

"Berners-Lee must surely regret not doing a better job"

I surely regret reading this hatchet job on Berners-Lee. Was there any alternative tech in 1992 that got kicked to the curb by incompetent, myopic Tim?

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Possibly - the closest contender that I've seen was Hyper-G (later commercialised as Hyperwave). It was a distributed open hypermedia system* with protocol-level support for link integrity. Would it have scaled as fast or as far as the Web? Probably not.

* Open hypermedia means that links are stored separately from documents, rather than being embedded in document markup

** No 404 errors! Ever!

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